Composing the Music of “Fettuccine for Five”

In spring 2019 I choreographed a dance in the style of 15th century Italian balli. This dance, Il ballo d’Eleanor con quatro Fettuccie per Cinque, or Eleanor’s Ribbon Dance for Five, was inspired by a friend and regular to my dance practice as well as by watching some people dance the existing ribbon dance, Tesara. I’ve already written about the process of creating this dance on this blog, and there is now a page here with directions and music for it. I thought I would tell you more about the thought process of composing the music for this dance.

My main goal was to write something very danceable and earwormy – something the dancers would sing the steps to and find themselves humming afterwards. I wanted my dance to have several sections using the different misura, much as the balli of Masters Domenico and Ambrosio do. With that in mind, I choreographed the dance with sections that would work in quaternaria, bassadanza and saltarelli misure and then came up with tunes for each. (These were 3 of the 4 commonly used time signatures in 15th century Italian dance music, roughly equating to modern 4/4, 6/4 and 6/8.)

In creating my tunes I thought about what I knew of medieval vs modern music theory and the fact that the 15th century was very much a time of slow transition out of medieval modes towards the more modern understanding of music. I wanted the tune to reflect that transition, as well as modes/keys commonly used in 15th century dance music. To help with that, I composed on my gemshorn, an instrument of the time rather than on my modern flute or baroque recorders. I also played through several existing melodies of 15th century dances before I started, trying to put my mind in the right framework.

Composing the 3 Melodies

Section A – 4/4 or quaternaria misura

Quaternaria was used a lot in the balli, including for sections where the steps were piva, even though piva technically has its own misura. I chose to do this rather than create a piva misura melody. Initially, I tried to compose this melody in F major (relative to the D minor melody I already had for the B section), but it just did not want to resolve into something I liked. I started noodling on my gemshorn in D major and somehow having the F# made it work. I don’t know, sometimes tunes just want to be in a certain key.

D major was less common than F major in 15th century dance music but not unknown. (F major was used as F Lydian but in the 15th century even though they called it Lydian, they regularly made the B flat anyway.) It was very popular in Baroque music, so in a way this section is looking forward to where the music was going.

The tune is supposed to be happy and bouncy to go with the piva steps mostly done to it. The version marked descant is what I originally wrote, and then when I started arranging I decided that I wanted a melody that would be easier to pick up and sight read. That melody still gets the main idea and the bouncy feel across but should be more doable for a dance band that hasn’t encountered this music before.

Section B – 6/4 or bassadanza misura

The bassadanza was known as the “queen of measures” and was the slowest of the misure as well as being seen as the most refined. Although there was a genre of dances entirely in bassadanza, it was also used in the mixed-tempo balli. The melody for this section came to me first – we often sing what we are doing to the tune of a dance and in the first use of this melody Eleanor does a voltatonda del gioioso, which she refers to as the “really slow and boring turn”. I sung that to myself and it became the origin of the B melody.

I wanted the bassadanza section to particularly reflect the medieval origins of the music, and so I chose to push back against my initial instinct to focus on thirds and instead emphasize the fourth and the fifth in the D minor scale that it decided it wanted to be in. This is why it jumps from D to A. (I guess because a “slow and boring” turn shouldn’t be major?) It could also technically be in the medieval Dorian mode, because although standard Dorian has a B natural, it could be flat at times.

Unlike the quaternaria section, my initial melody is what became the main melody. I actually wrote the descant for this section last, after having done most of the arrangement. I wasn’t completely sure that it needed a descant, but I remembered that that was very common for bassadanza music. In fact, often the tenor part was what was written down and the soprano instrument improvised a descant based on that. I looked over the few bassadanza melodies that we do have to get ideas for the descant on this one.

Section C – 6/8 or saltarelli misura

Saltarello misura, along with piva misura, was considered one of the “historical” or “common” tempos- something that everyone knew how to dance to automatically. It was less refined than bassadanza. Saltarello misura might be written in the equivalent of 6/8 or 3/4 and often had more syncopated rhythms than quaternaria. I decided to put this melody in the same key as the A melody. This one came to me pretty quickly as I was noodling around once I decided on a key because I knew the bouncy feel that I wanted. Like with the quaternaria section, the initial melody that I wrote is what became the descant, and then I created a slightly simplified melody from that for ease of sight reading.

A lot of the balli that switch between misura will include an extra measure or half measure at the beginning of the saltarello section for the dancers to do a little hop and prepare for the saltarello step, especially if it is switching from the slower bassadanza misura. I chose to write a full measure introduction for the saltarello section for that purpose.


In arranging this, I wanted to bring in a medieval feel to the harmonies at times and not solely rely on modern arrangement strategies. I also wanted to use the harmony and bass instruments to provide rhythm to cue the dancers, which is what would have been done in period as dance ensembles often did not have a drum. A lot of ensemble music that would have been played for dancing would have used a lot of straight octave differences between instruments more than the chord-based modern use of harmony. I used a mixture of both, but made sure to emphasize the octave in opening and closing of many of the sections, especially having unison play at the end of the whole dance.

Further Reading

Jennifer Nevile: The eloquent body: dance and humanist culture in fifteenth-century Italy. If you want to understand more about the 4 misure or time signatures, Nevile’s book is the key that really unlocked my understanding of it. This is an expansion of her work for her doctoral dissertation.

“Fettuccine for Five” News

I will be teaching the dance I wrote last spring at Atlantian University tomorrow. In preparation for that, I have started to post more information about in on this site. It now has a page of its own! You can find directions (including in Italian), the score and mp3 for the music and more there. I have also added the handout for my class to the Class Notespage.

In February, I will posting another blog post about Fettuccine for Five, telling you about the process of composing and arranging the music. In March, I will be posting videos of the Canton of Sudentorre dancing it.

Come learn this very silly dance and get the music I wrote stuck in your head!

2020 Plans

A look ahead…


I plan to keep working on my over-the-top appliqueed and embroidered Norse smokkr. At some point, I’d like to work out a new serk (underdress) pattern and start the green serk for the same outfit. I already have the coat patterned, so I will hopefully get to start on that this year as well. Other than that outfit, my main sewing plan for this year is a lot of fixing and finishing. I have several mostly-finished projects that need a few details. I’m not currently planning to attend any major events this year that I have to have new garb for, so I’d like to get what I have in better order.


I finished arranging the music for Il Ballo D’Eleanor and we premiered it at the Red Mountain Mead Hall event in Isenfir. I will be teaching it at our Kingdom University in February and we will be sending a video for the Dance Showcase and Kingdom A&S in March. I will be posting the directions, music and more information on the dance in the next couple of months leading up to those events.

I want to really focus on getting the dance pages on this site in order. There are a lot of dances I have reconstructed and don’t have up. I also want to sit down and actually write up all my specific research on the dances in the Nuremburg Letter – currently it is in notes in lots of different places.


Over the years I’ve been sucked more and more into helping my husband and his buddies with planning the feast they cook for our local March event. This year, Jasper and I ended up pretty much planning the menu after I suggested the theme. It all started with the thought process “Italian food before tomatoes”. We test cooked it recently and I’m pretty excited about the food.  It’s all themed around the Battle of Pavia (1525) between the forces of Charles V of Spain/HRE and King Francis I of France over control of Lombardy. I’ll be baking bread for it, of course.


I managed to post more last year, at least until about July. This year I’d like to keep building on that and post at least once a month without giving up when the new school year starts in August.

Creating a Dance in the Style of Maestro Domenico da Piacenza

Although this is not the first Renaissance-style dance I have created, it is the first I’m trying to teach and spread widely. I wrote a dance a few years ago called “Penny’s Farthing” to the song “The Great Velocipede Migration” from S.J. Tucker’s Album “Wonders”. I was listening to it in the car and my feet decided the tune needed an English Country Dance written to it. The album is inspired by the book “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne Valente, and the particular song is in reference to a scene where wild, living old-fashioned bicycles (high wheelers or pennyfarthings) are migrating, hence the song and dance name. It’s a circle dance for four couples and I’m still not quite sure about the middle.

This dance, which I’m calling Il Ballo d’Eleanor con Fettuccie per Cinque (Eleanor’s Ribbon Dance for Five), was inspired by a series of events over the past several months. My local dance practice regularly has an odd number of people, most often 5 or 7. This is somewhat frustrating when one really wants to do 3 couple or 4 couple English Country Dances, but does lend itself to 15th century Italian dances which do come in odd numbers of dancers. Eleanor duChester had been bothering me for more 5 person dances we could do. I had been intending to revisit the original directions for Verceppe in particular, but kept forgetting to work on it before practice. It had become something of a running joke, she would “remind” me at practice which was less than helpful.

So, there we were at Winter University, in a class on Tessara, which is a ribbon dance. There were more participants in the class than dance spots, so Eleanor and I were sitting and watching and chatting a bit. Watching them dance Tessara and thinking about her request for five-person dances created a spark of inspiration and I started writing this dance. It is very much Eleanor’s dance – if you know her, you will see how her personality inspired it very easily.

In the courts of the high families of Renaissance Italy, noble children were taught to dance by masters such as Domenico da Piacenza. When they were old enough and judged ready, sometimes a specific dance would be written for them to perform to show that they had attained the skills and bearing of a noble. Nobles learned to dance as part of learning deportment – dance in the late fifteenth century in the courts of the Italian city-states was intentionally being used as a class marker, a distinction to help consolidate the power of the ruling families. Anyway, this dance is dance for Eleanor to show that she has learned grace and deportment. (Did I type that with a straight face? Wow)

I mostly had the dance written by the end of University. Eleanor and I discussed and tweaked it the next day and even got some victims volunteers to walk it with us to make sure that it worked. It starts out with the dancers in a line entering with pive, then we have a little section where they make arches and Eleanor steals their ribbons (but bows to thank them after, of course). Then there’s a saltarelli section in a wheel. Then some slow and dramatic ribbon waving and turning around before they line up again to dance off with a fun piva snake. (I’ll write up a full how-to page on it when I’m ready to disseminate the whole thing.)

Eleanor’s approach to learning dance is very kinesthetic and very much based on musical cues. She is a firm believer in the music tells her what to do, and we make up songs to the tunes to help remember dances. With that in mind, actually writing the tune for her dance has been a bit of a struggle. I wanted it to clearly fit the steps and be singable.

I was able to fairly quickly write a tune for the bassadanza sections. Whenever we do a dance with a bassadanza voltatonda del gioioso, Eleanor sings it as “very slow and boring turn” so I had to work that into the bassadanza section of the music since she does one after the entrance. Once I figured out that it wanted to be in D minor that piece of melody practically wrote itself, along with variations for later bassadanza sections.

The melody for the piva sections took longer. I listened to and played through several of the existing 15th century dance tunes for inspiration, especially Amoroso. I was trying to write something in F major and it just wasn’t coming together. I switched from trying to write on my recorder to my gemshorn this week, and thus to D major (the gemshorn defaults to F#), and suddenly something started to click. I’ve even got several variations on it. Now all I need is to figure out the final melody, for the saltarelli section in the middle, and we’ll be ready to go!

The next steps are to work on arranging the music (which I already have people offering to help with, yay!), practicing the dance, and planning outfits. Our hope is to dance this for everyone at our Baronial Birthday event in September. I’m excited!

What in the world is a “bassduppel behennt”?

One of my major research interests over the past several years has been a letter written by Johann Cochlaus from Germany while visiting Bologna in 1517. In this letter he describes several dances he witnessed. The source is useful in that we otherwise have something of a gap in Italian dance manuals- we have several undated ones from somewhere in the late 15th century that are mostly copies of earlier works by Domenico and Guglielmo, and then nothing really until Caroso and Negri publish in the late 16th century, with a very different set of terminology and dance patterns. So what happened in the middle? This gives us one view.

Interpreting this manuscript has been interesting for me, as my Italian is way better than my German and we don’t have a lot of other descriptions of dance steps in German to compare it to. It also has some peculiarities-  for example, he consistently describes the man as “the one on the right” and the woman as “the one on the left” despite all other traditions reversing that. Rather than concluding that they suddenly decided to do every dance improper in 1517, I think he was describing it from the point of view of an observer, looking at the faces of the dancers.

Most of the step terms he uses are pretty easy to convert to familiar Italian and English steps and terms, as you can see in the table below. 

English Italian German
Double Doppio Bassduppel or duppel
Closed 4/4 double Quaternaria Doppio Duppel mit un repress (representing the fact that these are closed)
Syncopated 6/4 double Bassadanza Doppio Bassduppel
Single Sempio Basssimpel
Rise Movimento Altzada
Set or Close Ripresa / Continenza Repress
Hopped double Saltarello doppio Bassduppel behennt
Fast double Piva doppio Bassduppel behennt

So why am I confused about the term bassduppel behennt? The Smith book translates this as “fast double”. This seems to imply a piva doppio. I further went along with the idea of it being a piva doppio because of the dance Angelosa. Angelosa is a dance that does not appear in the main 15th century manuscripts we usually reference, but in two of the later fragmentary ones as well as in this letter. We do not have known music for it. The version in the German letter is a bit confusing and possibly missing steps, but the version in “Giorgio’s” manuscript in the NY Public Library is quite a cute little dance. The relevant point is, the final section of the dance is clearly stated to be “take right hands and turn with 4 pive, then take left hands and turn with 4 pive.” Cochlaus uses the term bassdupel behennt there, so I originally went along with this translation for the other dances the term appears in.

The term is found in two other dances in the letter, Bellregwerd (his version of Belriguardo) and Rostibin (his version of Rostiboli Gioioso). These dances are found in many of our 15th century sources, making comparisons easy and interesting. In both of those dances, the term “bassdupell behennt” is used in a section of music that is clearly in saltarello tempo (that is 3/4 or 6/8) and is stated to be saltarelli in ALL earlier versions. Doing pive in saltarello tempo isn’t impossible, and how to do it is described by Domenico in De arte saltandi but why assume that it is pive and not saltarelli?  I cannot find a modern German word that is equivalent to “behennt” (German speakers, help?) Perhaps instead of meaning fast it means “hopped” or “skipped”?

At this point I do not have a conclusion. It makes sense for the term to mean pive in Angelosa and saltarelli in Rostiboli and Belriguardo. Perhaps it was a more generic term that could be used for either step. They are similar in that they are done on the balls of the feet and more bouncy than other doubles.

Evolution of my Analysis of Leoncello

Leoncello is the first dance that I ever decided to sit down and analyze the evolution of from the primary sources. I was fairly new to this at the time I did it, and in preparing to teach the Leoncello class again for the first time in a while, I went back to the sources to double check a few things, only to find that my growing understanding of Italian grammar and the evolution of dance terminology caused me to change my interpretation. I wanted to share this since various people told me they were interested when talked about it on social media. Here is my original Leoncello handout.

My original interpretations of the three versions are there.  The major change in my understanding since then is of the step sequence contrapassi and the entrance of the dance.

When I first compared the different descriptions and music for the dance, one of the major areas of interest was the entrance. The music in Domenico specifies 5 repeats of the entrance music (which is 2 4/4 bars, so 10 bars or 40 beats), whereas Guglielmo specifies 4 and then in the later “Ambrosio” manuscript adds an A1 section. There is no music in the German letter. So I approached my interpretation assuming that there were reasons for the differences in the music.

Domenico’s entrance has six saltarelli (which takes 6 bars of 4/4) and then a sequence in which the man and woman rise, then the man goes around his partner with one saltarello right and turns into place. The woman then goes around her partner with a saltarello right and turns into place. Rather than insert a second set of movimenti as later versions do, I thought about how this might fit the music as Domenico wrote it, and why it might not be symmetrical. I have concluded that while the man turns into place with a mezavolta as part of the end of the saltarello double, the woman gets a whole bar to turn into place. (The mezavolta is used both at times where it is not a full turn but gets time in the music and at times where the turn is part of a previous step, such as the end of this double. Figuring out which use is meant in any specific dance gets interesting.) This makes sense if you think about the fashionable clothing of the 1440s- women wore houppelandes with long trains that require a little more maneuvering than a man’s shorter version.

I originally thought that Guglielmo’s entrance was three doubles (left, right, left), movimenti, man in front of partner with a double right and turn into place, movimenti, the woman turns in place. This fit the music:
1-2: Double left, double right
3-4: Double left, movimenti
5-6: Man double right in front, turn into place
7-8: Movimenti, Woman turns in place

However, rereading it several years later, I realized that the description of the three doubles is something Guglielmo has used elsewhere to mean a contrapassi sequence, as well as the fact that all of the later fragmentary manuscripts use contrapassi there as well. Furthermore, where he states that “the woman does the turn” is really him implying that she does the same turn as her partner, that is, goes in front of him and turns into place. So how does this fit the music?

1-2: Contrapassi sequence
3-4: Movimenti, man double right in front
5-6: Man turns into place, movimenti
7-8: Woman double right in front, turn into place

It is a little odd to have the movimenti  in two different places in the melody, but it does work. I’m going with it for now, unless I figure out something better.

So what about those contrapassi?  A lot of people in the SCA have been doing a version of the contrapasso based on the description found in Cornazzano. I originally started with the assumption that that version is what was meant in the 15th century, and the description in the German letter represented an evolution in the 16th century, much as Arbeau talks about his dance master inventing the close on the single around 1520. This seems to be upheld by Guglielmo’s description (neither he nor Domenico use the term, it seems to have come in around 1470). Also the term literally means “counter-step”. The question is: counter to what?

The German letter always describes it as “2 contrapass and one with a repress.” Taking “repress” to be equivalent to riprese, I saw this as 3 doubles not in normal tempo with the music and a sideways step to close. Descriptions earlier of the same dances that specified “3 doubles in 2 measures” in the place where that term was used in the German letter, I thought the evolution was the addition of the close.

In later readings through the theoretical section of Domenico to try and fully understand his descriptions of the tempos and steps, I later came to realize that the whole idea that “there were no closes on doubles in the 15th century” so widely accepted in the SCA was flat out wrong. Domenico, in describing the differences between doubles in quaternaria (4/4), bassadanza (6/4) and piva (2/4 or 6/8 cut time), discusses the different ways they relate to the measure and beats and the difference in movement. Part of that is stating that the quaternaria double has a frappamento on the final beat, which makes the most sense if you interpret it as a close. I also have compared the descriptions of steps in several more dances where later manuscripts use the term contrapassi to Domenico or Guglielmo’s step descriptions. Domenico mentions doing 3 pive in 2 quaternaria measures several times, and uses that final close/step to have you turn or do a quick bow as well. Finally, in NYPL/Giorgio, it gives a description of a contrapassi that matches this interpretation. Based on all of this, I now believe that the contrapassi step sequence was 3 pive and a close in 2 4/4 measures throughout the 15th century.